Pop & Hiss

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Mike Posner is on a quest to be pop's next best thing

May 18, 2010 |  2:59 pm
PosnerDanteBW After playing a sold-out show, it’s customary for most hip-hop artists to retreat to the VIP section of an after party or partake in a bit of debauchery on a tour bus. But not Mike Posner. After shows, he’s usually en route to another city, homework in tow. In the case of a recent sold-out opening slot for Drake in Los Angeles, he had to jet back to North Carolina the next day to pick up his degree in a sea of cap and gown-clad undergrads.

The 22-year-old Southfield, Mich., native is quick to tell you he’s not like any artist on the scene. And he makes for a pretty convincing case.

Once he inked a deal with J Records the summer after his junior year at Duke University (he majored in business and sociology), he did the exact opposite of what would be expected -- he stayed enrolled. He led the same double life as most undergrads: classes during weekdays and working during the weekends. Except as opposed to making smoothies, being a resident adviser or scanning books in the library, he spent his weekends touring the country, often playing in front of sold-out crowds, and no, there wasn’t any beer pong playing on the road.

Like many artists before him, Posner caught the attention of label execs after releasing his debut mixtape, “A Matter of Time” -- which he recorded in his dorm room -- for free on iTunes in 2009. The mixtape rose to the No. 1 slot on iTunesU. After a bidding war with a handful of major labels, the singer, songwriter and producer signed with J Records and went into senior year. With a second mixtape, “One Foot Out the Door” and buzz-worthy singles “Cooler Than Me” and "Drug Dealer Girl” under his belt, Posner is on a quest to dominate pop, and with a raspy voice that brings to mind Macy Gray or Jason Mraz. 

After opening for Drake, Posner sat down with Pop & Hiss in his dressing room. The click-clack sounds of ladies’ high heels hoping to spot the headliner -- who like Posner reached acclaim with mixtapes -- could be overheard in the hallway outside his room.

For a college student/budding superstar, his dressing room wasn’t what you’d expect (especially given his frat boy cred). No shameless women hoping to get close to him for the night, no stench of marijuana or  entourage of 20+  nameless faces. In fact, Posner is quick to talk about how focused he is, and it shows. The only thing that suggested a hedonistic lifestyle was a bottle of vodka in his dressing room, but he opted for water instead.

You haven’t been singing that long. How did you get started?

I started off making beats for other people. I would take meetings at labels and try to sell my songs. They would always say no. I never sold any beats. I never sold any songs. This was two summers ago; they would always say no. And then the light bulb went on over my head. Like I played them “Cooler Than Me” and they passed on it. I was just like, they are not buying this song for their artist, or this hook for their artist because their artist can’t pull it off. There is no one out there with lyrics like me, there wasn’t then, and there still isn’t now.  So I started singing. I had to be the guy to take ownership of what I was writing.

It wasn’t scary to jump into singing, though?

No one told me I could sing. I was a producer, so I knew what sounded good. When I first started this project, people always asked me, 'Are you surprised that they play you on the radio or are you surprised you got a record deal?’ and the answer is no. Seriously, at that moment, I started singing with every intention of just being the biggest thing in pop music, and that’s still my intention to this day. If I thought I wasn’t on that path, I would quit.

Posnerstudio-1 Getting a deal in college, you did the opposite of what most people would do. You hear so many stories of people getting deals and subsequently dropping out of college or high school. But not you. How were you able to balance both very demanding schedules?

It was incredibly hard. But I knew it was going to be hard. I was the one that made that decision to do that. I signed my record deal the summer after my junior year of school. It’s amazing how much time you have if you don’t party, I’ll put it like that.

To a certain extent, my life is like one big party, like I’m in the real world now, but how real is my world? I would go to school four days a week and I would get on a plane and I would go anywhere from two to five cities a weekend. Sometimes, I would go to class in the morning and do shows at night. I remember once like rushing to a show in Philadelphia -- after having class that morning, I went right to the airport.  I’m proud of what I did. I did homework on planes.  I turned down a few shows during finals week because it just wasn’t possible, and I finished with a 3.59.

You are very popular on college campuses. Students must look up to you?

To this day,  have people come up to me after shows and hit me on Facebook and Twitter and tell me I’m the reason they stayed in school, and that’s weird for me still as a 22-year-old. It’s one thing for my music to help people get through things, I understand that 'cause music has done that for me. But, for something that’s not even musical, just a life decision that I made to inspire people to make that decision in their lives really just touches me. I don’t even know what to say when people say that to me, but I guess that makes it all worth it. My parents are proud; I’m proud that I finished. But now I’m just excited. To be honest, I’m busier now. Now is the fun part. I’m more excited that my record is coming out in September.

Your style both with your music and your look is unique. Anything you’re influenced by?

Nothing has really influenced my style. You can’t point to one person out there and say, 'I dress like them.'  In the same respect, you can’t say that about my music. The way I dress is to reflect my music. Majority of the things I wear onstage are jackets made by my friend (Dr. Romanelli). What he does is the same thing I do with my music. He’ll pull things from different time periods and different places that you’d never expect that he could pull off and he cuts them the [expletive] up and makes a beautiful piece of art in his own right. The same way that I can take a Beyoncé song, something that’s already supposed to be beautiful by itself, and then I just [expletive] it up and completely redo it and make it dope like myself. [Posner is referring to his take on “Halo,” from his “A Matter of Time” mixtape.]

Signing a deal, were you worried about being placed in a box?

Sure. You know there are a lotta ways I can answer that question. One, I was blessed because I was in a position almost a year ago where I got to pick my label, like it wasn’t just one person trying to sign me. There were a lot of people that were trying to sign me. I picked the label that understood me. Secondly, I had my own thing going before I signed a deal. People always ask me, ‘How did you get discovered?’ I didn’t get discovered; the people discovered me. Before I signed, I was doing concerts across the country and people knew all the words to my songs. I’m blessed and grateful for everyone who supported my music without a radio single, or even a picture. For months and months, I was doing shows and no one knew what I looked like. Looking back, I couldn’t be more proud. Why else were those people at the shows? Why were they sold out? It was because of the music.

Your first two mixtapes were very well received. What can fans expect on the debut album?

The album is like the mixtapes on steroids. I’ve said that before, but I like saying it. This album isn’t something I started working on after I finished my second mixtape. This album I’ve been working on my whole life. Every song is incredible. If it’s not, then it’s not making the album. The songwriting, my ability as a singer has grown exponentially like it did from my first mixtape to my second. I just feel like the songs are on another level. We both can name five artists right now whose albums aren’t as good as their mixtapes. I swear, I promise, I pinky swear with a kiss that I’m not one of those artists. I put my heart and soul into this record. I really think it’s going to blow people’s minds.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Photos: (Top) Dante, (bottom) Rob Dowsley